Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Biographer’s Joy

There is often a letdown when a project is finished and my focus has to change: after the children’s graduations, after my husband retired, when we moved to a new place to live. All these were happy occasions but they marked the end of an era. And then, of course, the new becomes the norm and life continues.

But I hadn’t expected a letdown after Drawn Together was finally launched. It was such a triumph to finally finish a very long project, and wonderful to see the manuscript turn into a real book, complete with cover, pages, and illustrations. I realized I felt bereft because I was saying goodbye to Berta and Elmer Hader, two meaningful people with whom I had spent ten years. But they also brought many new adventures and people into my life as I researched manuscript and art collections, wrote to and telephoned strangers, and connected with old and new friends who shared the same Hader passion. I felt I was also saying goodbye to all that.

But now my mail is bringing  interesting surprises. One day an excited email showed up in my mailbox, from a woman—Betty--I met years ago in my small town of Roseburg. We kept in touch sporadically after she moved away, and she bought a copy of Drawn Together through the mail from Concordia. She had just started reading the book and had come across a reference to someone familiar: Gertrude Emerson, one of the Haders lifelong-friends. Gertrude was an adventurous woman, who took a trek around the world in 1920, came back to the US, edited the then well-known ASIA magazine, and founded the still active Women’s Geographical Society. Gertrude married an Indian scientist, Dr. Basishwar (Boshi) Sen, and spent the rest of her life in India. Betty had known Gertrude’s entomologist brother Alfred, though she never met Gertrude herself, and she had also had married an Indian scientist who knew about the Sens. She was surprised to find new friends in a book. I was surprised to find we had friends in common. Who would have thought? 

Another letter bringing joy was one from an old friend from the northern Chicago suburbs—another place I lived for years. She found the book through my blog...and I had no idea she even knew I had one. She liked the book, which was good, but what was wonderful thing was catching up with long ago good friends, and finding out what their families are doing. It is way too easy to lose touch with people when we move away, but this new social media is reversing that. It’s a big world out there—but it is also very small.

I hope to have more of these serendipitous events, as the book moves out into that big and small world. I love feeling I am still linked, though tenuously, to the Haders, people I grew to love without ever meeting. It reminds me that past and present are totally linked, as well as all those people I knew once upon a time and those I have yet to meet. It also makes those ten years of sitting at my computer seem worth it!

Now that I have time to read for enjoyment, I plan to read  other biographies, and feel connected to those subjects and authors. When I was a child, history seemed very far away. Now I realize how close it really is. Why did I feel such a letdown?


Sunday, January 24, 2016


The biography of Berta and Elmer Hader is finished! The proof copies will be coming out in 3 weeks, in mid-February. It’s been a very long process.

Wouldn’t you think, as an author of eight published books and several library guides for students, this would now be easy? Hah! One of the many admirable Hader traits was the way they adapted to the many publishing changes in the early and mid-twentieth centuries. Of course, those kept threatening their livelihoods—they supported themselves all their lives on their publications and art.

My writings are more “how to do it” books—companions to my teaching career. Writing is still basically the same—put your seat on chair with a supply of ink and paper. The technologies though, have changed the way books are edited and published.

The editorial process is always interesting. It’s been different with each different publisher. My very first book, a bibliography of academic articles on how to teach library skills came out in 1986 from Garland Publishing, a small academic press. The volume itself looks very different than books published before or since. Personal computers were just coming into widespread use. I couldn’t have written and rewritten the bibliography of 700 or so citations without using one, but the publisher couldn’t translate my computer created manuscript directly to their own computer. Instead, the editor sent me a template for the pages. All the margins were marked, and my typed pages had to fit this layout. Then each page was photocopied before being printed in the book. I had to create the headers and footers for the pages, and even make the index in those early, pre-mouse days of Microsoft Word. (I still have moments when I threaten to toss Mr. Mac out the window, especially since he knows more than I do but still allows my operator errors.)

The next books were also “how-tos” based on a favorite student project: the Battle of the Books program which is in almost every state. These were authored with several other school librarians, so a teacher new to the program would have a broad overview of how it could be adapted to different types of schools and libraries. The books came out from educational publishers, and the editors knew exactly what content was needed. We librarians did much editing among ourselves. Since we were all in different states, manuscripts went back and forth via the post office and emails, and by the time the finished product was in editorial hands, most of that work was done. Another “how to” book of household tips was edited and compiled as a fund-raiser for our branch of the American Association of University Women.

Walking Portland—the first version—was published by guidebook company, Falcon Press, in Montana. This was planned to be one of a series of guidebooks to convention cities for those who were tired from speeches and wanted to see the town. The series editor, Judith Galas, had written the first guide for Colorado Springs, and we used that as a template for Portland’s. She was fun to work with. She asked me to buy two identical city maps: one for each of us. I mailed her each walk as it was completed, and she checked it against her own map for accuracy. Then she would edit the text, making sure the punctuation and spelling were consistent and matched the company’s own style manual—a hyphen in Douglas-fir for example, and that street names matched those on the map. When she returned the manuscript back it was splattered with questions and suggestions on sticky notes.

By the time the second version of Walking Portland Oregon came out (Oregon was added to the title because east coast friends wondered what I was doing in Maine) Falcon had been sold to a much larger publisher, Globe Pequot, in Connecticut. Portland had changed dramatically in fifteen years: I’d told friends I thought the rewrite would be like sprucing up a few rooms in a house, but it was more like tearing the place down to the foundation and then rebuilding each part. Much of the city artwork had been moved to different sites and many new buildings had been built. An entire new city district—the South Waterfront-- had been created, which also gave access to the older neighborhoods once cut off by the freeways. New walks took the place of older ones.

Publishing had changed too. Not only was the new company much larger, but also computers had changed drastically in the intervening years. Instead of the original editor writing corrections on sticky notes, chapter by chapter, these were now handled using the computer editing function. Instead of retyping a sentence, changes were made in the handy little drop-down box. My notes were in one color and the various editors’ notes were in another. The mistakes were obvious.

Maps were another huge change. In 1998 I outlined my walks in colored ink on a large photocopy of the city map, and then turned those individual walks over to husband John, who had studied drafting in school and could draw excellent maps. Falcon designers used these maps as a base for their own style of map, with consistent icons for playgrounds and restrooms. Satellite imagery now provides “geopoints” for every spot in the city, improving map accuracy. These left me completely baffled. Fortunately, Carolyn, my city planner daughter-in-law, rewalked each chapter and converted all my notes into this new format. The maps in both versions of the books look the same, but the technology behind them is completely different.

My latest book has been edited over and over, and will be launched sometime late spring 2016. It is a life story of two very talented New York artists/writers, who had to change their creative output to meet new publishing demands. They were friends with a large community of artists and writers, who frequently put down their typewriters and came out for the weekends, leaving their typewriters behind to help Berta and Elmer hand-build a house from the ground up. Besides their creative output (nearly one hundred books and three Caldecott awards,) and weekend visitors, the Haders were active in gardening and conservation. They even successfully joined forces with other villagers to save their village from being destroyed by the State of New York.

There will be more about writing biographies in later blogs. This has been a real change in writing direction, requiring new skills and new ways of working with editors. Nothing ever stays the same!

Now I am working with another small academic press, Concordia Publishing. Because it is in Portland, there has been much more face-to-face interaction. I know my editors personally, which makes it easier to create an acceptable manuscript, and makes it harder to disappoint. This has been another new experience: not in the technology and the distance, but all the steps involved in a new type of writing. It took me nearly ten years to finish the biography. And it seemed so simple to start!

I’ve learned a lot, and I might as well share it. If nothing else, it will help me to remember for the future. I don’t ever expect to write another biography—but I have learned never to say never! Who knows.

* I longed for the early days of Walking Portland when all footnotes were done by feet, forgetting that those entailed rewalking everything at least three times to get things right. This WAS physically easier!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Cluttered Computer Problem

Email is a wonderful research tool. I find a reference, look it up, and fire off an email to find out more about the topic. I add the note to my manuscript and go on, completely ignoring the source of the information. It seems automatic to document information from articles and books, but impossible to be equally as thorough with the emails. It’s because I save the emails, knowing the computer can find the item I need easily. What I hadn’t realized is how quickly my computer got cluttered, to the point that even it couldn’t find all the things I’d stashed in various folders under different names. If I don’t remember the name or key word in a message, it hides forever.

Another problem was changing ISPs when I moved. The emails stayed in the folders set up with the previous provider. I wasn’t able to access them all. So I finally hired someone to come over and get all my emails in one place. I wound up with about 5000 emails to and from all sorts of people. The only useful thing was that in most queries I had put the name of my subjects—Haders or Berta and Elmer Hader--in the subject line. Most (but not all) replies repeated what I had used. Unfortunately, sometimes I used a different subject, because the Haders were not the main focus. Such as finding information on impressionism, or miniature painting, or a particular friend.

So the last month or so has been spent tediously going through every email, deleting and/or moving every single one. Not fun!

Some were easy. Long ago I told friends that I would never pass on anything that would promise rewards, prevent disasters, or improve the world. I‘d deleted every funny that came in if it required going somewhere else like YouTube to open. However I’d saved far too many other funny cartoons and sayings sent to me by well-meaning friends. I’d gotten the first chuckle out of them—did I think there’d be more?

A few shortcuts helped get rid of another thousand or so. I first:

1) sorted the emails by the date column. Most of the ones before 2009 (when I started this project) were out of date. It was relatively easy to go through those earlier ones and toss them. Sometimes there was a date or a new address, and I noted those down on a piece of paper. (Yes, paper still makes my world go round.)

Then I
2) sorted the remaining emails by the sender column. That made it easy to go through and delete political messages, offers I’d kept to think about, notes pertaining to old newsletters I had edited and so on. I also was able to get rid of most of the “funnies” sent by friends, since most of them came from the same dozen people.

3) Sort # 3 was by subject. This worked well since the remaining emails were now ordered by subject, sender, and date. I found plenty of political messages, invitations to join newsletters from writer friends and organizations, magazine sales pitches and others I’d missed on the first go around, and more subjects I didn’t recognize. I used some of the subjects to set up mailboxes. Anything relating to the Haders went into a mailbox with that label. I labeled another one “IMPORTANT”: airline reservations, orders not yet received, items that needed immediate follow-through. Others were for family, friends, research items such as useful websites, possible publishers for other writings, and so forth. You’ll know what you need...and never want to see again.

4) For emails containing only a tidbit of something useful, I copied the tidbit to a computer sticky note or a “FOLLOW UP” blank page for things to do later. With the date on the note, I had an organized list—easy to check off or file later.

I was surprised how much info was hidden in the email clutter. I still have another thousand to go through, and more arrives every day. I’m debating about using the e-computer to automatically send things to smart mailboxes, but I’m afraid I might not never even notice them there. In many ways this paperless trail is too easy to ignore. With paper, I eventually have to face the paper piles or I can’t move!

Anyone have any more ideas for managing the computer flow?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


When I decided to write a biography of Berta Hoerner and her husband Elmer Hader, I had no idea how to go about it. I wanted to find out how these two diverse California artists could not only fall in love (that’s relatively easy) but build a life together. Having had a long marriage myself, I know that blending two lives is not quite as easy as it seems in the fairy tales. The two people grew up in different places, had quite different artistic expectations, had different temperaments—and yet managed to build a fantastic house together (and I know divorces caused by remodels!), combine their artistic backgrounds into the field of children’s book illustration, entertain an amazing group of friends that were active in different careers, entertain them and their friends every single weekend while still publishing over a hundred books during their lifetimes. Elmer’s final words were “I had a darn good life” and he did. Their friend Rose Wilder Lane said they were the only people she knew that made a success in living. Mary Margaret McBride, the Oprah of 1930s radio, said her friends though the Haders must be “figments of her imagination” because they seemed like such a wonderful couple.

In these days of constant exposure to unfaithful partners in unhappy marriages, it seemed timely to have an account of a positive one. I wanted to find out what made this work.

There were 40 boxes of material at the University of Oregon. That’s a lot of correspondence, manuscripts, and letters! My friend Joy Rich, Berta and Elmer’s niece, also had inherited much of the letters and cards as books the Haders sent to the families over the years. So unlike some biographers, I had enough materials right at hand, and probably wouldn’t need to go to the many other places that also had saved Hader artwork and manuscripts. At least there was enough to work with in the beginning.

The problem with so much material is keeping track of it. I asked my historian son, Harold, who has written some very well-received historical biographies, how to go about it. I didn’t want to have to go back to find references and names. Hal gave me good advice for organization, though reminding me that “everything gets entangled with everything else.” He suggested 1) setting up a file drawer for the project with a) "various subfolders for the information you collect and b) another set of subfolders for the various drafts of the chapters you'll be working on. I think the main things to keep track of are first and foremost the bibliographical information, to which you can attach the notes you take."

It’s those bibliographic references that I’m always having to recheck. Information comes in many forms. Secondary information, from books and articles, are easy to handle. But someone says something pertinent, and I either forget who said it or how the quote was stated.

Hal suggested making sure that notes from the primary and secondary sources are in good order, and also make notes connecting things together. “Keep track of things like 2) the persons they worked with (so, little biog. sketches, and the sources for them), 3) a timeliine of events, 4) publications they were involved with, and 5) other themes such as early children's literature or environmentalism.

I must admit I haven’t always followed through—and I am now finding I have to recheck references. But that’s my fault. I’m still looking for the magic way to organize, just like I once looked for the magic way to raise kids. There isn’t any magic. It’s just work.

The other advice I have almost always followed is to have paper and pencil by every chair in every room, especially the bathroom and by the kitchen sink. (My muse must be a water baby—she prefers to visit me when my hands are wet and busy with something else.)

And I also keep a little notebook in my bag for jotting down ideas whenever they come. “In the middle of a project all kinds of ideas come at odd times. You'll hardly use any of them in the end, of course, but you won't want to lose the good ones.”

Again, if anyone has items to add to this, please let me know. I firmly believe in networking!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding a Theme

You’ve chosen the person. As you start collecting data, you should start seeing themes as well. What is the importance of this person’s life?

When I first began working on the biography of Berta and Elmer Hader, I wasn’t sure how to start. I knew their writings were considered to be excellent, were well reviewed and usually acquired by libraries. When I became a school librarian I realized I'd read some of their books as a child. I don’t remember any particular impact on my life, except the Hader books along with the Thornton Burgess books gave me a lifetime appreciation for the natural landscape. I suspect this theme may have also impacted many of today’s adults.

Susan Vreeland, author of historical fiction, spoke in Port Townsend, WA, in March. According to the online version of the Peninsula Daily News, (3/27/11) she said that “Historical novels are thematically based and biographies rarely are.” The theme of the Emily Carr story, The Forest Lover, was the artist’s affection for place. “It took me years to find this theme. If I had identified it earlier, I would have finished the book much earlier.”

Some of the most interesting biographies do have a theme, besides the chronological time line of a person’s life. Biographer T. J. Stiles in his Biographer’s Blog chooses his subjects, such as Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt, because their lives do represent themes. After stumbling on the topics of cash being shipped around the U.S. and the rise of railroads, corporations and the modern financial system, he looked for a subject to represent these themes. He discovered Vanderbilt, known in his time as the Railroad King.

Bob Welch wrote American Nightingale, a biography of World War II Army nurse Frances Slanger, who landed on Utah Beach and slogged her way into Belgium with her medical unit. Her letter in Stars and Stripes celebrating the American GI was published after her death. In his book Pebble on the Water, Welch says “What proof did I have that Frances Slanger had made any difference in the world around her?...How had she touched those around her? How was the world different because of her? If I couldn’t answer those questions, I didn’t have a book.” Theme again. He also went on to comment: “Writers start their research with the presupposition that everything means something. Not that you can hope to answer every question that the evidence triggers. But you look for themes, patterns, tendencies, then connect the dots, taking into account not only what the information suggests but from whom it came.”

So, it seems that theme is just as important in biography as it is in fiction. Having a theme in mind is helpful. The downside is the tendency to ignore facts that don’t match the theme—which a true biography cannot do! Any answers to this dilemma?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

As usual, when I start any new project, I leap in without any idea of what I’m getting into. This was true when I agreed to write a biography of Berta and Elmer Hader, an amazing couple who wrote and/or illustrated nearly 100 books in the 1900s--fondly referred to these days as the “golden age of publishing.” Three of their books received Caldecott Medals: two were honor books, and The Big Snow is still one that teachers read when winter arrives.

So that’s what the Haders are known for. The challenge for me was to find out what kind of people they were, and what makes them worthwhile subjects for a biography in the 21st century. Fortunately, many resources were geographically available: the University of Oregon holds an extensive collection of manuscripts and letters, and their niece who lives in my home town has inherited much of the family papers. So the raw materials are available.

But where to go from there? I am still struggling over filing my notes where I can retrieve them when needed, working on the chronology of their lives and their published books, and researching the very famous and not so famous people of the day that were close friends.

There isn’t a lot of information out there about writing in this particular genre. Memoirs and autobiographies, yes. Biographies of historical figures: not so much. I’m hoping that perhaps others of you can chime in with your own suggestions and problems and tips. Berta and Elmer were good networkers in their day. I know from experience that sharing ideas with others makes both of us richer. Someone wrote that when each person shares an idea with each other, each has gains two ideas and they can multiply.

I’ll share my journey, and hope others will share theirs.